After the North Koreans, the British are probably the most highly surveyed people in the world. Around 10,000 publicly funded closed-circuit television (CCTV) camerasto say nothing of the private oneswatch London every day. The average Briton, you often hear, winds up photographed 300 times a day as he goes about his business, even if his business is crime.
Whenever a brutal murder is committed in a public place, the police announce that they are examining the video evidence: no such murder ever seems to occur off camera. Yet the number of CCTV cameras in place seems to have no effect on the number of crimes solvedthe police in the London boroughs with many cameras, for instance, clear up no larger a proportion of crimes than those in boroughs with few.
A recent study demonstrating this failure to improve the clear-up rate, however, could not also show that the cameras failed to deter crime in the first place. Common sense suggests that they should deter, but common sense might be wrong. For if the punishment of detected crime is insufficient to deter, there is no reason why the presence of cameras should deter.
It is a matter of observation, however, that speed cameras on our roads cause most drivers to slow down. The reason is clear: if drivers are photographed speeding, they likely will receive fines and, if caught repeatedly, lose their licenses. For most people, such an outcome would be, if not a catastrophe, at least a severe inconvenience. Getting caught is not in itself sufficient to deter: for example, receiving an admonishing letter, evoking the drivers moral responsibility to respect speed limits, would almost certainly have no effect upon his subsequent behavior behind the wheel. A serious penalty if caught is necessary for effective deterrence.
The drivers whom speed cameras do not deter are those driving illegally in any case. Not only are they harder to trace than people driving legallythey are, after all, usually driving in borrowed or stolen carsbut they have no licenses to lose, and probably no legal income with which to pay fines. If caught two or three times, they may go to prison for a couple of weeks, true. But the low risk of getting caught a sufficient number of times, combined with the mildness of the penalty if they are, makes illegal driving worthwhile for them.
The problem with the criminal law in Britain today is that it neither incapacitates criminals nor deters those inclined, for whatever reason, to break the law. The crime-inclined are probably more numerous than ever before, which makes leniency doubly disastrous. The huge number of CCTV cameras in Britainperhaps as many as a third of all such cameras in the worldis an official response to the increased lawlessness of the population. But as with so much official activity in Britain, it achieves nothing. It is para-detection and para-deterrence rather than real detection and real deterrence.
In fact, the surveillance may even make matters worse, for if people run no additional risks in breaking the law while under surveillance, they may conclude that they have absolutely nothing to fear from the law. What is certain is that we begin to feel Big Brother watching us; thus arises a strange alliance between leniency and authoritarianism.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.